El (Luis Buñuel, 1953)
English Title: This Strange Passion
This is Luis Buñuel's monster movie; it's only difference with the likes of James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) or The Invisible Man (1933) is that it's monster is completely human --- visible, palpable and quite normal-looking. Don Francisco (Arturo de Córdova) is a very wealthy man; he preoccupies himself with a lawsuit involving a huge amount of lot he claims as his family's. Other than that, he serves the Church well enough to treat the parish priest as a good friend who gets invited to his frequent socials at his palatial home.
That's the disturbing thing about Don Francisco --- he's actually very charming and has a way with women. It's that mysterious magnetism that pushes Gloria (Delia Garcés) to him; probably an unspeakable sexuality that simmers underneath the Sunday clothes or the romantic and longful gazes that are exchanged under the solemnities of Lenten processes. The first time we see him, he piously guides the priest in washing the feet of several altar boys before his eyes are lost in a row of feet, first of the altar boys', then the public's. A gorgeous pair of feet attracts his fancy and his eyes peek at the owner's, Gloria, looking very virginal under her veil.
You instantly sense Francisco's viciousness the moment he hunts down Gloria after church services --- the way he pulls away from the parish priest and his friends (with a not so innocent white lie; the parish priest tells him that if what he's doing is that important, it mustn't be good) to chase Gloria. The next scene at his house is even more telling of his warped nature; during that moment, he fires both his attorney and his maid for reasons that aren't exactly fair (for his lawyer's honesty and for the maid's unintentional scandalous liaison with his trusted butler).
Don Francisco's master plan to woo Gloria into marrying him instead of his good friend Raul (Luis Beristáin) is disquietingly devious. When he gets his prize, he erupts into a paranoid frenzy that culminates in random acts of cruelty and torture. Successive and spontaneous pangs of jealousy, misogyny and violence are the norm in Francisco's household. That's the monster that will hold Gloria captive during the second half of El. Francisco's depraved demeanor mixed with his pitiful condition (and the fact that he practically owns everyone, and is smart enough to win the hearts of those close to Gloria) suffocates Gloria to the point of reciprocal paranoia. Despite the illogicality of maintaining a relationship with Francisco's monstrous persona, you believe their being bound together, both by Francisco's valid threats and intimidation and Gloria's own sense of being trapped and trying to salvage a love-filled yet undeniably erroneous marriage.
Buñuel gets the tone right. He precedes Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) in depicting the very real danger of a man gone insane. He understands the choking atmosphere provided by the tight grasp of marital vows and the accompanying pull of class procedure. The damning effect of maintaining reputation, of keeping good relations with the Church, of practically living life as dictated by societal standards keep both Gloria and the already damaged Francisco on a dangerous edge. In a way, with all the effective horror and suspense Buñuel provides, it sidesteps into the area of humorous social critique --- the way he manifestly connects the errors of religious shallowness and class maintenance with the fears, paranoia and disdain of Francisco.
El is bookended by scenes that depict Buñuel's sarcastic view of the Church. He begins with the ritual of washing of the feet (a Lenten tradition wherein the priest imitates Jesus Christ's act of washing his apostles' feet, then kissing them). Buñuel's fetishistic portrayal of the ritual reaches for the absolute silliness of the proceedings wherein minds float (from feet to feet to an unbearable sexual attraction to a church patron) against the supposed piety of the Church (Buñuel furthers this theme when he sets Francisco's final outburst inside the same Church --- wherein he imagines the patrons to be laughing at him; presumably this shows his disdain and lack of real trust on the ideals of Catholicism).
The film ends with Francisco as a monk. We somewhat get a false sense of renewed piety for Buñuel's charming monster but once he opens his mouth and again alludes to his senseless accusations and suspicions, we can see that madness still simmers underneath the same Church robes (the same way, during the first time we see him underneath his prim and proper attire). He zigzags back to the monks' abode --- his walk is very telling that there's something more than meets the eye.
This post is my contribution to Flickhead: Luis Bunuel Blog-A-Thon.